Home / Opinion / Views /  Space weather preparedness is in our national interest

By 2030, the global space industry could add almost 50,000 new commercial satellites to the existing 5,000 odd. These would include earth-observation satellites selling commercial imagery, telecom orbiters providing 5G and next-in-line 6G data services, and meteorological ones selling weather-forecasts and datasets. These services will depend on satellite constellations operating in a choreographed manner and could generate several billion dollars.

The increasing dependence of the digital economy on satellite constellations is spurring investment in this area. But investors must beware: it is not risk-free. The most apparent threat is the celestial equivalent of traffic accidents: collisions between satellites plying dense orbits could result in massive free-floating space debris. A 2020 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report estimates that protecting satellites from space debris could cost 5-10% more per space mission. So, commercial firms have emerged that provide a prognosis via ground-based debris tracking and situational awareness systems. Some even offer co-orbiting robots to scoop up space debris.

Another threat to satellite constellations is that of extreme space weather events, and this cannot be addressed by space and digital players alone. It demands the attention of governments.

Last October, the US Congress passed an Act that directs civilian and military agencies to reinforce national space weather forecasting abilities. Apart from America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and other state-run entities, the US Air Force and Navy are involved too.

As the US is an expeditionary military power, with armed force bases across the world, the Pentagon is dependent on satellites for the coordination of reconnaissance aircraft, naval carrier groups, submarines, fighter jets, helicopters, and surveillance and attack drones, among many other mobile platforms. Space weather-caused glitches could threaten these assets and compromise operations. The US Geological Survey also monitors space weather events, for their impact on civilian operations that range from high-power transmission on the ground and navigation systems to oil and gas pipelines and utility infrastructure. Along with Nasa, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitors the sun for geomagnetic storms, coronal mass ejections, and other phenomena that emit radiation and highly energetic particles that disturb satellites as well as ground infrastructure. The new law’s implementation is being overseen by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Other countries have other approaches. When China restructured its armed forces in 2015, it transferred its meteorological, hydrological and space weather command from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) general staff department to the PLA strategic support force, the latter being its new branch for cyber, space and e-warfare.

New Delhi has lessons to learn. India’s economy is expected to become increasingly dependent on space- and ground-based commercial, civilian and military assets. These will be vulnerable to extreme space weather events. India therefore needs legislation like America’s to issues cross-ministerial directions. This will help India fulfil its blue-water navy aspiration, operate an indigenous satellite navigation system, secure road, rail, energy, telecom, shipping and aviation infrastructure, respond to natural disasters, and ward off national security threats—all of which will depend on a comprehensive national space-weather law.

India is swiftly progressing with its capital-intensive planetary exploration and human space-flight projects. Consequently, it is imperative for the government to develop and adopt space weather forecasts before initiating outer space activities.

While our country moves ahead with its Gaganyaan programme and aspires to set up an Indian space station by 2030, we must deploy across-the-board space-weather monitoring, forecasting and response systems designed to safeguard deep-space assets and protect our gaganauts.

India already has scientists who observe the sun and its inherent physical behaviour, its solar storms and coronal mass ejections, and its surface and ‘helio’-seismological activities. The Indian scientific community operates numerous ground-based ‘sun observing’ telescopes across India, and is well connected with its international peers. In the coming months, perhaps by 2021-end, it is expected to launch Aditya-L1, a space-based solar observatory, with assistance from the Indian Space Research Organisation. The data generated by it will be crucial for India’s space weather monitoring ambitions. But without a national policy backed by legislation, the scientific community would find it difficult to meet the strategic demands of the conjoined space and digital economies.

A model lies in India’s whole-of-government approach on disaster response and humanitarian assistance, as seen in the way natural disasters like earthquakes are tackled and preparatory work is done for cyclones, floods and tsunamis. The enactment of a space weather law, like India’s 2005 Disaster Management Act, could help the country protect its digital and telecom systems that extend to outer space from destructive solar storms and intense solar and galactic radiation whiplashes.

Chaitanya Giri is fellow for space and ocean studies, Gateway House

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